Q&A with Eric Sommer & The Fabulous Piedmonts, an intersection of improbable influences and experiences

"I am not sure it can and remain the “music industry”. AI applications writing songs? Making melody? I am not sure that is music, certainly not without the most important element of all: a human behind it. Music is live performance - it’s not video, it’s not film, it is human beings working together on stage, without a net, without an algorithm, doing a collaborative process that is imperfect and fraught with danger because it is “in the moment” and goes by in an instant."

Eric Sommer & The Fabulous Piedmonts

Eric Sommer and The Fabulous Piedmonts are Eric Sommer (guitar-vocals); Jimmy "Four Fingers" Hauer (stand-up bass, Stingray electric); and Amanda Sycamore (percussion). Eric Sommer is the writer, lead singer and guitar player for this stand out collection of musical souls. His credits are strong and diverse, starting in Boston opening for Little Feat tours. Sommer also shared bills with David Bromberg, John Hammond Jr. and Leon Redbone; then fronted gene-bending power trio The Atomics, who toured for several years with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Dead Kennedys and Bugsy Low-Low, which subsequently led him to London. Eric then moved to Aarhus, Denmark, playing with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds for two years off and on while picking up acoustic tours in Germany, Denmark, and Holland. Sommer has recorded five albums --  one with The Atomics, and with Brooklyn Bolero Producers at Room 13 in Brooklyn. Numerous singles followed; the output will soon be enhanced with a new release by The Piedmonts. Sommer has developed a unique acoustic style that combines picking grooves reminiscent of Steve Howe and Doc Watson with his tour-mates from The Atomics’ influences,  which include The Cars and a bit of ZZ Top; and country pop-styled songs of Hank Williams channeled through a little Shania Twain, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Black Crowes.                       (Eric Sommer & The Fabulous Piedmonts / Photo by Jason Cryder) 

Jimmy “Four Fingers” Hauer is a  virtuoso on stand-up double bass as well as Stingray electric. He has played all over the world and is a sought-after session bass in the North Carolina Triangle. Percussionist Amanda Sycamore brings her considerable skills to a multi-faceted musical cyclone -- back-up vocals and a remarkable variety of tools turns these songs into a unique storm of perfectly-timed sound waves. She holds a bachelor's and master’s degree in percussion performance from UNCG, and has performed with Drum Corps International, Busch Gardens Entertainment, and various touring acts including The Irish Tenors, Paul Anka, and Kenny G. She is currently the Principal Percussionist for the Salisbury Symphony and enjoys sharing her love of music by teaching private percussion and piano lessons in her home studio. Sycamore also enjoys working with music publisher C. Alan Publications,  where she composes works for percussion ensembles and solo marimba.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Archive: Eric Sommer, 2016 Interview @ blues.gr

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Eric: I have grown to the player I am today – and still growing – through a set of curious circumstances. When I started on my first instrument, I was 5 years old, living in Bangkok Thailand. I practiced hard, took a few lessons, and when I was 12, I was playing in Downtown Bangkok for the GIs on R&R from Saigon. Staff Sgt. Jim Hall gave me my first set of finger pics, showed me how to play “Freight Train” and I listened to Bert Jantsch, Davy Graham, Jorma and Pete Seeger records for hours at a time. So, by the time I returned to the US after 12 years in SE Asia, I was a decent player. Back in the US we moved to Lexington, MA, and while my dad went back to SE Asia for another 32 years, and I discovered the Boston and Cambridge music/folk scene on my own. I was playing in Harvard Square on weekends and after school, and by the time College came up, I was off to New Jersey to Stockton, a brand-new experimental school and a family friend from Bangkok was one of the Deans and ushered me thru the application process.

At Stockton, I played relentlessly, hunting down anyone who knew YES material, any and all bands who could play the songs I had been writing. After two years of playing and writing, I applied as a project photographer for USAID and went to Saigon and back to see my mom and Dad who had since moved back to Bangkok. I had a guitar with me everywhere, and I lived with my dad in Saigon at 145 Yen Do, just outside Ton Su Nhut AFB, and with him I traveled in the convoys all around South Vietnam. Then I finished up in Bangkok, living with my family on Soi 19, and I was constantly in Chinatown where all the guitar stores were, looking at all the beautiful Stratocasters and electric guitars in the windows. All the while I was learning my craft, playing any and every chance I got, and each move and each experience was tucked into my heart and soul to be called upon at some distant point in the future when I’d need them.

I didn’t plan to return to college, so I flew to Tel Aviv and hitch-hiked to Geneva and then Amsterdam and then to Denmark where I got a room at the School of Design and lived there for 6 months and played in two coffeeshops twice a week – here I wrote songs and practiced in the saunas during the day and then played live at night. This is where I really worked diligently and with purpose on my playing and writing. I grew so much as an artist in this period, my ticket home was going to expire, so I flew back to Boston and lived in my empty parent’s house while playing every day and every night of the week in Boston and Cambridge, this is where I learned to play 2-3 hours straight without letting up and met and played with so many different people. I had a job during the day, played every night and took two years at Berklee College of Music, was picked up by Don Law and toured with Little Feat, John Mayall and The Blues breakers, Leon Redbone, and then went back to Denmark where I played with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, Wreckless Eric, Bram Tchaikovsky and occasionally Chrissy Hynde who had moved to London.

I came back to Boston, formed The Atomics and we toured with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Dead Kennedys and Wreckless Eric for about 7 years. These formative years made all the difference, and I had acquired enough skills to go out on my own and played around the US and the EU for almost 15 years as a solo act. I would play anywhere at any time and when I was on tours, I played every night of the week: busking, open mics, anything at all. All the road work, all the non-stop touring and the constant interaction with audiences and various bands gave me confidence, helped me create my unique style, wrote songs and road prose endlessly and every single time I picked my guitar, I called on all my stored experiences and grew each moment, changing, evolving, and projecting against the audience all that I had learned… This is a process, and the journey is all. Change is critical in order to grow, and I have become very confident in my changes and evolution as an artist and as a human life form.

Amanda: My first musical performance experiences in school were reading notes off the page and regurgitating what I read. As I matured as a performer, I became more interested in interpreting what I was seeing on the page in order to create something I wanted to express or would want to hear, and in some cases not even using the page and simply listening and expressing my own musicianship in the moment to create what I felt was the best performance of a work. Surrounding myself over the years with musicians who were top of their game in their genre has been invaluable in learning about different genres and styles as well as how to interpret the percussion parts in each of those styles. I love the process as much as the product. I enjoy practicing and finding engaging ways to work on my technique and musicianship just as much as performing the finished product.                                                   (Photo: Eric Sommer)

Who are some of your very favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?

Eric: When I was back from Denmark, living in Cambridge, I stumbled across the Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square on Church and the Harvard Coop Alley. The band that I saw there was The Chris Rhodes Band, and the guitar player was David Landeau. Seeing him, watching him play, changed my life and my whole approach to playing, soloing and showed me a new vista of harmonic and musical possibilities which embraced an endless variety of forms and structures, changing, evolving, and expanding from within during a multi-bar form. These things were all within a song, a solo or simple musical expression. These stylings were based on horn lines and Charlie Christian techniques. It was a combination of Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Larry Carleton, and Joe Pass all rolled into one. It was the moment I was set free.

Amanda: I am a romantic composer fan girl. I listen to Holst, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Grieg, Mahler and truly hear where current "popular" music draws from. I can't listen to a single movie soundtrack, pop song or percussion ensemble piece without telling you what symphonic experience it came from.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

Eric: There are a lot of obstacles in any journey, some natural, some self-made, and many put there by people who for one reason or another, resent your progress. There has been a lot of that on my journey, and it wasn’t until I was very confident in my skills, my direction, and my inner groove, that all those distractions faded into the background, faded to black, and then faded away. Once the focus is on the act of producing – working on your craft, becoming one with your goals, becoming one with your creative endeavors, whatever they may be, all else becomes, as the Sumi-e says, “just the sound of a dog barking” and has no power over you. My mother was a remarkably painter, and she worked for 70 years in the Sumi-e process, in the end becoming a very famous and sought after artist. One of her most beautiful and inspiring phrases which she painted many times is “Though the current be swift, it cannot sweep away the Moon.” Realizing that, and internalizing it, has been a remarkably liberating and cleansing experience, both intellectually and spiritually. For me, the key to becoming the best I can be is through constant practice, thoughtful execution and, most of all, remaining calm inside.

Amanda: Unfortunately, my answer is "being a woman". I was one of very few female percussion students at university, often the only female in several of the symphony percussion sections that I performed with, and an up and coming female composer in the boys club. It has absolutely helped me become a better person as well as musician. I had to practice twice as hard, write twice as well, and perform twice as often to get noticed. But it has paid off in spades!

(Eric Sommer and The Fabulous Piedmonts are Eric Sommer (guitar-vocals); Jimmy "Four Fingers" Hauer (stand-up bass, Stingray electric); and Amanda Sycamore (percussion) / Photo by Jason Cryder)

What moment changed your music life the most? How do you want the music to affect people?

Eric: When I was in Hight School in Lexington, I volunteered to work at WBCN, a radio station that was just starting out on Stuart Street in Boston. I worked from 3am – 9am, and that lasted about a week since I couldn’t do HS and WBCN at the same time. Peter Wolf was the lead singer of The J. Geils Band, and he was the main DJ at the Station. When I told him I had to quit because I couldn’t do both, he gave me tickets to a show at The Catacombs, a new club he had put together under Jacks Drum Shop on Boylston and Mass Ave, in The Fenway, next to the original Berklee College of Music. That Saturday night I took the bus to Arlington, then the Bus to Brattle Street, hitchhiked down Mass Ave thru Central Square, past MIT and over the Mass Ave Bridge, and out at Newbury Street. I walked across the street to Jacks Drum Shop and hiked down 4 flights of stairs to The Catacombs. It was a 20’ x 40’ small space with a low ceiling, and we sat right up front, about 12” from the stage. It was John Lee Hooker opening for The J. Geils band, and it was the first Rock Sow I had ever seen! It was mind boggling! Afterward, I found John Lee and told him this is exactly what I wanted to do. So, I asked him what kind of guitar I should get, and he said to me in a voice that was like Crown Royal over 35 sandpaper: “Hell, boy – it ain’t never the guitar, it’s ALWAYS the player”!! I can hear it in my head as I write this.

Amanda: There are so many moments. Competing in DCI at 18 to a cheering crowd; the goose bump inducing music we performed solidifying my dream to become a performer. My first published piece changing my views on whether or not I was creative enough to share my original ideas with the world. The sheer giddiness of the call from the music director congratulating me on winning the principal percussion position with the symphony. The pride in passing my love of music on to students over the years. I want music to affect people in the way it means to most to them; whether it be as a listener who is emotionally affected when listening to their favorite band, or as a performer who is trying to express something that maybe they couldn't with words or deeds, or as a struggling student who needs that one thing in life to validate them in that moment. Music does all these things, and I honestly believe it saves many people in times of darkness.

Artists and labels will have to adapt to the new changes. What are your predictions for the music industry? How do you think the music industry will adapt to it?

Eric: I am not sure it can and remain the “music industry”. AI applications writing songs? Making melody? I am not sure that is music, certainly not without the most important element of all: a human behind it. Music is live performance - it’s not video, it’s not film, it is human beings working together on stage, without a net, without an algorithm, doing a collaborative process that is imperfect and fraught with danger because it is “in the moment” and goes by in an instant.

For recordings, if AI gets involved, it no longer becomes authentic, human being created expression. It’s now in-authentic samples of cyber created electrons, organized in such a way as to deliver the most pleasing and commercially acceptable sound package that has the best chance of making money, as research and focus groups, sales charts and accountants dumb down the process to nothing.

Amanda: This is the age of the unsigned artist and the self published composer. Unfortunately, this makes finding music that speaks to us extremely difficult. Yes, this means there is a lot of garbage being put out unchecked, but it also means the vast amount of talent out there that is never going to be discovered or appreciated is mind boggling. There are so many "services" claiming to help the independent artist, but I would love to see the music industry come together into a branch that helps artists reach the proper audiences whether it be social media, streaming services or live performance.

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(Photo: Eric Sommer)

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